I thought it was just another of the Varanasi tout’s sales pitches. “Come come, madam, you see my shawls. Goldie Hawn buy my shawls!”
I looked at the rotund little Indian man, almost as wide as he was high and with three horizontal orange lines swiped across his forehead (a sign that he worshipped Shiva, the Hindu god of destruction), and decided that although he looked very huggable and sweet, I did not believe him.
I’d been hearing Goldie Hawn’s name whispered down by the ghats and in the dark, zigzagging back alleys of India’s most spiritually saturated city all morning.
“Come into my tea shop, madam, Goldie Hawn buy my tea!”
“Madam, you like my silk? Goldie Hawn like my silk.”
“You come to Goldie Hawn’s astrologer, madam?”
I was aware that Hawn had indeed visited Varanasi, one of the world’s oldest cities that’s regarded by Hindus as the most sacred place on earth, as my mother and sister-in-law had spotted her at the Taj Varanasi almost a decade ago.
But whether she’d been back since, and whether she had indeed frequented any of these little businesses, was anyone’s guess.
And if there was one thing I did not want to be in a city so renowned for its dishonesty and general dodginess, it was a schmuck.
“Please madam, one minute you come out back, I show you pictures – many pictures, of me with Goldie. Come, come.”
The prospect of fake Goldie Hawn photos proved too much to withstand and I found myself taking the bait.
I followed the man down an impossibly narrow laneway, really more of a gap between two walls, crammed with lumbering cows, ancient wizened holy men and broken down bicycles.
We entered a doorway at the end of the alleyway and the man, whose name as it turned out was Bapu, led me into a room painted the very pinkest shade of pink, lit with the harsh light of a single, naked bulb, the air thickened with incense.
Cabinets lined the walls, heaving with silk scarves and pashminas in all the colours of the rainbow. “Sit,” instructed Bapu, and I sat. “See,” instructed Bapu, and I saw. I saw! Actual, real-life framed photographs of Bapu with Goldie Hawn over the past few decades.
There was Hawn looking decidedly 80s in front of the terraced ghats down by the river Ganges with Bapu.
There was Bapu with a dressed-down, make-up free Hawn with a bindi dotting her forehead, sorting through shawls on the very floor I was sitting on. There was Bapu and his entire family posing with Hawn down by the river.
There must have been about seven of the photos all up, but that wasn’t all.
Bapu then proceeded to pull out a collection of laminated letters that she had written him over the years. “My darling Bapu, Kurt and I think of you and your family often, you are always in our hearts …” I recall one beginning. I was impressed. And, perhaps, just a little starstruck.
As a bit of rifling through local newspapers and online gossip sites later revealed Hawn has in fact been visiting the sacred city since 1982, when she first met her late “spiritual guru” Acharya Devki Nandan Shastri there.
He imparted to her lessons about spirituality and astrology and she fell in love with the place, visiting the city about eight times since. “I have a close association with this city and I have many friends here,” Hawn, a practising Buddhist, told the Times of India in 2009.
I left the shop that day clutching a wildly overpriced silk shawl that Bapu managed to sell me, with heartfelt promises that Hawn had the exact same one.
As I wove through the pilgrims and tourists on their way down to the Ganges, I remember flipping the shawl about my shoulders despite the oppressive 36-degree heat, and feeling that certain glow that only comes from close encounters of the celebrity kind.
That glow, however, lasted only the three minutes it took me to realise the terrible truth of the situation: I was officially a schmuck.